Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge - Season 5, Episode 2

The Continuing Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge
Season 5 - Episode 2 - Isay to Scarp
Exploring the Isles of the West Cruise    April 18-May 2, 2022

After our exploration of Isay we steamed across the Minch under cloudy skies. After passing through the Sound of Harris, Charlie took us up past Taransay and into the Sound of Scarp. As we passed Huisinis, on the Harris side of the Sound, we could see the Stiomar cutting across the Harris slopes. It is a thrilling, steep path, that leads from Husinis over to historic Cravadale. (For a description of that walk see this link: Cravadale Walk). Most who take the path do not go to Cravadale, as a side trail halfway along branches off to Traigh Mheilein, one of the most stunning beaches in the Hebrides. 

When I'd hiked the path in 2013 I did not take the detour to the beach, as I was exhausted. Little did I know that we'd be visiting that glorious beach the following day, and in doing so encounter the most surprising thing I've ever seen on a remote island beach. In the following photo you can just barely see the Stiomar path halfway up the hillside.

We anchored for the night just off the Scarp settlement, which saw its last full-time residents in 1971. The following morning we were greeted with sunshine and mostly clear skies that would be with us for several days. 

After landing on Scarp I led the group through the blackhouse settlement of North Town, and then to the old shop, post office, and burial ground.  

We then hiked up to the old schoolhouse, which is still in the process of falling down. When I first visited Scarp, in 2004, the roof was intact. But instead of scholars, a large class of sheep was sheltering inside. A while back the owners put a bit of money into the structure, complete with flush toilets. But they did nothing to improve the roof. Needless to say, winter winds took the roof, and the building won't last much longer.

Before leaving Scarp we stopped in to see Brian and Shiela Harper, who have been spending their springs and summers on the island for many years. They are a lovely couple, and it was a delight to see them again over a cup of tea. (See this link for more on Scarp and the Harpers: Scarp Posts.)

Brian then told me something surprising: a wedding was going to happen that afternoon on Traigh Mheilein beach, just opposite Scarp on Harris. So when Charlie offered to run us over to the beach for a couple of hours, some of the group decided to come along.

Magnificent does not come close to describing Traigh Mheilein: a mile-long stretch of blinding-white shell sand. What few visitors it does see, have to climb the Stiomar from Huisinis, a mile-long hike along that path that climbs 300 feet as it hugs the steep slopes of Huiseabhal Beag. (Most are not as fortunate as we were to be set ashore from a boat.) The following photo shows the view from the path looking down to Huisinis.

It was an entrancing walk along the beach to its north end, from where an easy hike over the dunes led to Loch na Cleabhaig. In the following photo the lone house of Cravadale can be seen on the far side of the loch.

From the high ground above the beach I had a birds-eye view over the Sound of Scarp, with Hjalmar Bjorge resting peacefully at anchor.

When I returned to the beach I had a vision: A lovely young woman in a flowing white dress slowly walking across the white sands, accompanied by a tall man in a kilt. (As it turned out, she'd injured her leg on the hike out.) From a discrete distance, I took a photo of the wedding party before Charlie came to return us to Hjalmar Bjorge. While he was ashore, Charlie was approached by someone from the wedding party, who asked if it would be possible to return the bride to Huisinis in the RIB, so that she would not have to make the strenuous return hike with a bad leg. Charlie was happy to oblige. Hjalmar Bjorge, a former rescue boat, had come to the rescue once again.

Back on the ship, we sat on the deck to watch the ceremony, which took a very long time; a drone flying around to take photos of the event: Charlie patiently waiting on the beach for over an hour.

All in all, it was one of the most unusual, and delightful, Hebridean days I've ever had: I'd seen old friends, showed off one of my favourite islands, and witnessed a beach wedding. We spent the night anchored in the sound, and in the morning set off for the Flannan Isles.

Three men alive on Flannan Isle,
Who thought on three men dead.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

The Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge - Season 5, Episode 1

The Continuing Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge
Season 5 - Episode 1 - Oban to Isay
Exploring the Isles of the West Cruise    April 18-May 2, 2022

After being cancelled for two years, Season 5 has finally arrived. The cancellations were publicly blamed on COVID, but the true story is that the guide had demanded an exorbitant raise, free beer, and a total ban on fish pie. He finally relented when the skipper discovered the guide had an overdue four-figure bar bill and threatened legal action. 

And so, after a 30-month absence, I was back aboard Hjalmar Bjorge for my fifth guide trip. We were very fortunate - the sun was shining and the sea calm - as we set out from Oban. Aboard were seven guests, which made for a small, intimate group, as my previous guide trips have had up to 12 guests. Four of the group, Clare, Debbie, Wolfgang, and Nigel, were frequent flyers. New to Hjalmar Bjorge were Peter, Liz, and Anne, and the crew consisted of skipper Charlie McLeish, First Mate Mel, and chef Steve Milne.

We had a smooth three-hour sail up the Sound of Mull to settle in for the night in Glenmore Bay on the south side of Ardnamurachan. The next morning, Skipper Charlie took us up the Sea of the Hebrides to take a look at the Sanday Stacks (by Canna). Puffins are usually found there, but nary a one was in sight. A bit of a disappointment, but the massive number of puffins we'd see on Mingulay in a few days would make up for that.

The sea was slightly choppy as we motored up the west of Skye past the iconic Neist Point lighthouse. Along the way, several puffins, Manx shearwaters, and razorbills paid us a visit.

Our first island destination was Isay in Skye's Loch Dunvegan. Isay (√Ćosaigh, Old Norse for House Island) appeared as we rounded the Vaternish Peninsula. We took a look at the conditions near Isay, but it was too rough to anchor, so Charlie motored us towards the Skye shore to anchor for the night off the village of Stein.

After breakfast the following morning we headed over to Isay. There are two reasons Isay is well known to those who love Scottish islands. The first is because of the following passage from Boswell’s journal of his trip to the Hebrides in 1773:

There is a beautiful little island in the Loch of Dunvegan, called Isay. MacLeod said he would give it to Mr. Johnson, on condition of his residing on it three months in the year, nay, one month. Mr. Johnson was highly pleased with the fancy… He talked a great deal of this island—how he would build a house, how he would fortify it, how he would have cannon, how he would plant, how he would sally out and take the isle of Muck.

The second reason this little island is fairly well known is that it was owned, for a short time, by the singer Donovan.  Donovan bought Isay, the two neighbouring isles of Mingay and Clett, and some nearby land on Skye in the late 1960s. A lot of what you read says he established a commune on Isay itself, which is not true. He did establish a commune in the area, but he pretty much glosses over it in his autobiography, The Hurdy Gurdy Man. In a chapter entitled Lord of the Isles, Donovan describes how he met MacDonald of the Isles in Stein to discuss buying land, including the island of Isay. The chapter opens with the following:

My thoughts were drifting to the wild and windy land of my birth. I had some crazy notion of starting a commune with my artist friends, to pick up the threads of an early dream, to be a poet and painter. I felt that musical fame had led me astray.

We anchored off Isay in a spot sheltered by the smaller islands of Mingay and Clett. In the one song (that I know of) where Donovan mentions Isay, he also mentions these two small islands. The song, which was never formally released, is And Clett Makes Three, which you can listen to at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7_Qy9lOcBI

We attempted to get ashore via the landing ladder used by the boats that make day trips from Dunvegan. I'd used this steep ladder the last time I landed on Isay, but ten years had passed, and time has taken its toll - the ladder was bent, slippy with seaweed, and looked scary - so we made an easy landing at the small beach just to the north.

Once ashore, we hiked through the abandoned village, passing, one by one, a dozen ruined houses. Upwards of ninety people called Isay home in the nineteenth century when it had been a fishing station with a general store. The community came in 1830, made up of people evicted from Bracadale, fifteen miles away on Skye. But life on the island came to an end in 1860 when it was cleared for sheep.

Here and there nettles and blue iris, but no people, greeted us as we explored the village. At the south end of the village we came to another string of houses, and below them stone fish traps could be seen on the foreshore.

A bit past the end of the village we came to Isay House. It is an eerie-looking structure. The roof is missing, and the jagged and split gable ends looked like pincers pointing to the sky, lying in wait to clutch one of the gulls that soared overhead. Access to the first floor is via a grand, stone-balustered staircase. (The balusters have long since gone with the wind.) The staircase is ten feet across at the ground, gradually tapering as it rises to the threshold of what had been the reception room. No door blocks the entrance these days, and if you step through you will fall ten feet down into the rocky ground floor, as the house is now just a shell.

We took turns climbing to the top of the staircase to look out over the hollow interior. If he had taken MacLeod up on his offer this could have been Samuel Johnson’s holiday home, from where he could have sallied forth to take Muck. But there was someone who stood here about fifty years ago that did decide to make Isay a holiday home of sorts, and that was Donovan. In his autobiography, he describes landing on Isay and sitting on tussocks of sea grass inside the ruin of Isay House when he decided to buy the property.  He goes on to tell about establishing the commune in the winter of 1968 by buying ‘a few old gypsy caravans’. Gardens were planted, and ‘my friends and I had probably experienced the last wilderness of Europe before the coming tide of development’. He then writes briefly about the end of the commune. It was turning out to be expensive, and so he ‘sold the Isles to a Dutchman’.

Something less picturesque happened in Isay House 400 years before Donovan's time. It was in 1592, when Ruairaidh MacAilein MacLeod, known as Nimheach (the venomous) lived here. MacLeod wanted his son to inherit Raasay and the lands of Gairloch, but his family was third in line for the inheritance. So Ruairaidh decided to host a banquet, and the families that stood in the way were invited. During dinner each attendee was invited to have a private word with him and, one by one, each was quietly murdered.

Tour of the island complete, I took a group photo, then everyone dispersed to wander for the remaining hour ashore. Pictured are: Top row - Clare, Peter, Ann and Debbie.  Bottom row: Anne, Wolfgang, and Nigel. Over the coming week we'd get to know each other, and what a week it would be. Sitting there on Isay we had no idea of what marvelous weather awaited us - the sun shining down as we'd explore five more islands. 

Our next stop would be Scarp, where Hjalmar Bjorge, a former rescue boat, would be called upon to rescue an injured bride from the white sands of Traigh Mheilein.

I see, you see, we’ll all be free,
Isay, Mingay, and Clett makes three.

‘Isay, Mingay, and Clett Makes Three’, Donovan (1970)

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Beehive Dwellings of the Hebrides - Book Review

Note: I will be pausing the blog until May, when I hope to be able to share the stories of some new Hebridean adventures. 

* * *

The following review of Beehive Dwellings of the Hebrides appeared in the Stornoway Gazette. The review was written by Frank Rennie, who has allowed me to reproduce it here. The book can be purchased via the following link:  Beehive Dwellings of the Hebrides


Stornoway Gazette, August 29, 2021

There sometimes appears a book that you return to again and again, browsing the pages to discover (and re-discover) the delights of the contents. This is one of those books. This is a book for armchair reading that will inspire you to check the weather forecast and look out your old walking boots, because you will want to investigate for yourself the gems listed in these pages. There has been very little written about the beehive structures of the Hebrides, and much of what has been published is in a format of academic writing that may capture the details, but often lacks the excitement and the essence of exploring these buildings in their natural landscape. This book by Marc Calhoun does both, superbly. At 260 pages of large format text and beautifully illustrated with 285 colour photographs, plus diagrams, and orientation sketch maps, this is undoubtedly the most comprehensive, and the most readable, account of the beehives yet produced. It is not a small, pocket-sized publication, but rather a well-documented account to spread out on your lap in your favourite armchair and savour the planning of innumerable journeys to view the locations for yourself.

The text is written in an easy, informal style, but it takes the reader along on the journey of the expeditions and explorations of his 20+ years of visiting these strange structures. The beehive dwellings get their name from the curious domed structure of their dry-stone construction, like small, rounded, dumps of stone on the landscape of the moor and hill. In reality, they were used for several different purposes, from small summer shielings to storage rooms, or as cells of the early Celtic clerics, and possibly even some of them as the homes of the earliest hunter-gathering communities to settle in these islands. All of this contributes to a rich heritage in stone that, although resilient in its building components, is fragile in its construction and even more tenuous in its recorded history. In Lewis, Harris, and North Uist, in the scattered islands of the Inner Hebrides and the outliers of the far northwest, the author has visited, catalogued, and described a hundred or so beehive structures, giving each a short text accompanied by a precise grid reference and map description, and where relevant the identification number in the Canmore archaeological archive.

You may be surprised to find that you can write so much about such simple ruins, but you would be mistaken. If you know the region at all, you will want to turn to your favourite location(s) (the list is presented geographically) and study how to find the beehives in that area, (if there are any, for these are uncommon relics of the past). There is a fair chance that, unless you have prior knowledge, you may have walked close by a tumbled-down beehive without realising it. If you are not familiar with the off-road parts of these islands, but you like walking and you have even a passing interest in heritage or archaeology, then you will likely next reach for your collection of OS maps to prepare for your next walking trip.

One of the beauties of this publication is that not only is it the most comprehensive account to date of the beehive dwellings over the whole range of the Inner and Outer Hebrides, (including a detailed appendix giving the sources of further archaeological and historical information on each area) but that the author has personally visited each location. His enthusiasm and dedication to charting the history and geographical distribution of these ancient buildings is evident throughout the book. The text is sprinkled with passing references to the appearance of a structure, or the views from the door, or simply a memory of a visit, and these anecdotes bring to life the discoveries. As you flip through the pages, the wonderful colour photographs highlight different aspects of interest (archaeological, architectural, and historical) and provide an important record of this aspect of our heritage that has generally been neglected (apart from the dry descriptions in old academic journals). The author has a word of caution about visiting some of these sites, because the dry-stone walls are sometimes precariously balanced after years of neglect, but the locations of most of them mean that we are unlikely to see a flood of visitors seeking to clamber over the remains. Part of the attraction in these buildings is also part of the reason that they were built, and why they have lasted intact for so long, namely that they are generally far from roads and villages. Simply getting to the sites (and being able to find the structure once you get there!) will require more than a little effort, and is a large part of the reward for that effort. If you are not able to trek the moor to see them in real life, this book, for the first time,  provides a satisfying proxy to enjoy the journey from your armchair.

This is a scholarly publication that is a pleasure to read simply for fun. I am dipping into it, in no particular order, and the multiple joys that this book contains are suggesting not one, but many day trips and island walks that will combine physical and mental stimulation in the outdoors during the coming months. This book will be available for consultation on my coffee table for quite some time before it gets archived on my bookshelf.

Marc Calhoun Beehive dwellings of the Hebrides: A photographic record.
Acair: Stornoway. ISBN 9-781-78907-077-4 £20.00

Monday, January 25, 2021

One-handed Typing

I have been a bit delinquent at blogging. I recently had shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff tendon. I was on a hike last year where we had to hold on to ropes for safety while descending some steep hillsides. I slipped and the rope saved me. But with the added weight of the pack the stress on my arm tore the tendon. As a result I am limited to typing with one hand, which is a slow process. I hope to be in shape to hike again in a few months, and to once again raise a toast to the Western Isles in the Western Isles.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Please, Sir, Can I have some more?

More breakfast fun in Scotland . . . 

On our first visit to Scotland my wife and I took my parents with us. It was 1989, and after exploring the Loch Lomond area we drove north to Fort Willian. As we approached the town we saw a vacancy sign at the Innseagan Hotel, and decided to spend the night there. We enjoyed a quiet evening, and in the morning the four of us went down for breakfast. As usual, there was a table filled with an assortment of cereals, and another table with a tray of tiny glasses set next to pitchers of apple and orange juice.

I proceeded to scoop some corn flakes into a bowl, and to fill one of those tiny glasses with orange juice. As I made my way to a table I heard a shout.

"Sir . . . Sir . . ."

"Yes", I replied.

"Please, Sir. You can have cereal, or juice, but not both." I had to return the juice. That was my introduction, and a still lingering memory, of Fort William. Good times.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

A Breakfast Request

A Scalpay week. Sounds fascinating, doesn’t it. A week in a Gaelic speaking B&B sounded even more fascinating. A chance to practice a language I’d been studying for a few years. I also had some unfinished business on Harris: a minor island easily reached from Scalpay by a bridge. And so I booked a week-long stay on Scalpay in the best time of year to do that, late spring. 

On the first day I made the circular walk to the Scalpay lighthouse, and was late getting back to the B&B. I was the only one staying there, and as I climbed the stairs to the room my host Annabel asked what I’d like for breakfast. I tried to say what I wanted in Gaelic, and as I did she nearly gasped, a look of puzzlement on her face; it was as if I’d asked for fried cow-pooh and boiled bull testicles (maybe I did.) 

I repeated my request in English: I'd like a bowl of corn flakes, two fried eggs, toast and coffee. She was still puzzled, a puzzlement that puzzled me for a few puzzling seconds. Then I realized most Americans want the full Scottish breakfast: porridge, eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, potato scones, tomato, mushrooms, kippers, and black pudding (I felt my arteries harden as I wrote that). Such a breakfast would leave me incapable of doing anything but having a heart attack, and then resting in peace, forever. She was very happy with my selection. It meant she did not have to get up at 4am to start cooking.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Tobar Odhran and an Image of Sloth

Over a year has passed since my last visit to the Hebrides, and another may pass before I return. I have spent some of the year writing, but most of it relaxing on my recliner. And as I do so I am the perfect image of sloth. 

Would an image of sloth be worthy of a statue? I hope so. I can see myself being immortalized in stone; resting comfortably in front of the TV, a beer in one hand, a remote in the other. I wonder if I can find an artesian with the skill of Michelangelo to chisel my lazy image in stone. Probably not. But someone centuries ago did immortalize two images of sloth in the Hebrides. They are known as Dealbh na Leisg, which can translate as either the image of laziness, or the image of sloth. Sloth, laziness, either would be appropriate for how I’ve spent much of 2020.

But I have to say my form of laziness is not quite like that depicted on these stones (not for many years, anyway). One of them is mounted high on the tower of Rodel Church on Harris. It shows a man laying on his back, passing the time, not with a beer in hand, but grasping his manhood. In the nineteenth century the Countess of Dunmore, not caring for the explicit nature of the stone, had it used for target practice. As a result the three-dimensional aspect of the stone has been, shall we say, circumcised. The stone is an odd thing to find on a church, but not this church. Just around the corner is the carving of a naked woman.

The second carving of sloth is on the island of Colonsay. It is a stone pillar that dates to the 8th century. Originally placed next to the chapel of Riasg Buidhe, a village abandoned after WWI, it was moved to Colonsay House garden in the 1890s.  The carving on the front of the stone is exquisite: at the top is the face of a monk, whose body is created by whirling designs similar to the rock art of Dalraida, terminating in what looks like a fish tail. The end result is an enigmatic fish-cross crowned by the head of a bearded monk.

The front of the stone is shown in countless books on the sculpture of the Hebrides. What’s never shown is the back side. That’s not just because of the subject, but also because the image is so worn it does not show up well in photography.

At first glance, aside from a lozenge shaped object near its rounded tip, the back of the cross appears undecorated. But there is a faded image, perhaps purposely worn off; one hinted at by its name, Dealbh na Leisg, the image of sloth. The subject of the decoration is further hinted at in this excerpt from Kevin Byrne’s book Lonely Colonsay; Isle at the Edge: “The reverse seems to be associated with a more virile tradition, possibly a symbol of fertility or potency.” Byrne goes on to quote a writer from the 1880s, who slyly remarked that “the stone is dressed only in front, undressed on the back.” This bit of undressed stone is a phallic symbol. A mixture of Christian on one side, pagan on the other. You can see a line drawing of the stone at this CANMORE link.

I wanted to see this unusual stone up close. So on a visit to Colonsay long ago I made my way to the garden. Looking over the garden wall I could see the stone, twenty feet away, standing watch over Tobar Odhran, St Oran’s Well. The holy well is covered by an old millstone, and if you lift it (which I did not do) you will discover the well is constructed of coursed and mortared rubble masonry, with steps leading three-feet down to the water. Set in the eye of the millstone cover is something odd. It may have been part of the axle for the millstone, but to me it looked like one of the pre-Christian water-worn bodach and cailleach stones, such as those found on Gigha and in Glen Lyon.

St Oran’s Well, in its garden setting under the watchful eye of the monk-stone, is one of the sacred sites of the Hebrides. I am no expert in what defines a thin place, where the border between this life and the next mingle; but whoever placed the stone here created a divine space: the cross with the face of a monk watching over the well, while the powerful image of Dealbh na Leisg wards off those who might not be intimidated by a cross; an example of a merged Christian and pagan talisman, all the protective bases covered in case one fails the test.  Maybe. Perhaps. Read into it what you will. 

Even though thirty years have passed, the fragrances of the Colonsay gardens pop into my head whenever I think back to the day I hopped over the garden wall (shame on me) to see Dealbh na Leisg. I will surely return to the isles of the west, but right now I’m going to recline in my chair, grasp something with one hand, a beer, and with a remote in the other see what’s on.